Airport Security: Is It Possible to Secure Public Spaces?

Securing public spaces completely may never be possible, but after attacks across the world in different airports, government officials were prompted to look into ways to bolster security and attempt to protect people in both closed and public spaces. Airport attacks are nothing new – they date back to the 1970s – but as security increases in closed spaces, public spaces continue to remain vulnerable.

Brief History of Recent Public Space Attacks

In November 2013, a man entered Terminal 3 at the Los Angeles International Airport with a gun, shooting a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer at point-blank range, killing the officer and injuring several others. He was shot before he could cause any more casualties and was found with 500 rounds of ammunition. His plan was to target TSA agents, and he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

That case prompted Congress to pass the Gerardo Hernandez Airport Security Act in 2015, a bill that aimed to increase airport security and require airports to create a security response plan in case events like this occurred again.

Unfortunately, the U.S. experienced yet another incident in an airport public space just a couple years later. In January 2017, a man entered the baggage claim area at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport after coming off a flight. After retrieving his checked baggage, he removed a gun and ammunition and began firing, killing five and injuring several more people.

Internationally, airport attacks have continued as well. In March 2016, three explosions targeting the Belgian capital, Brussels killed more than 30 people and injured more than 230. Two of those explosions were at the Zaventem Airport inside the departures hall, and the other occurred at a metro station.

A June 2016 attack by suicide bombers at the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey resulted in the deaths of 41 people and wounded 239 more. The attack occurred in three separate spaces – outside the airport, inside the departures hall and in arrivals. Both the Brussels and Istanbul attacks were attributed to the terrorist Islamic State group.

International Airports Step Up Security Measures

Many airports don’t have additional security screenings before entering a terminal, but some international airports have added some checkpoints. In Nairobi, a checkpoint is set up a kilometer from the main terminal to search cars, and Ben Gurion Airport in Israel has very tough security that involves passenger profiling, bomb sniffing devices and questioning of each passenger.

India requires anyone entering an airport terminal to have a valid ticket and passport in an attempt to reduce public access to these spaces, and crowd size within the building. Airports in Turkey check passengers and bags as they enter the terminal, and again after they check in for a flight. Moscow airports also check passengers at terminal entrances.

Can Public Spaces Be Protected at All Airports?

After the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S., security was ramped up to protect closed spaces and procedures were put in place to ensure no more attacks would happen on airplanes. But what, if anything, can be done to enhance security in the public spaces of an airport?

Analysts say that adding additional checkpoints may just end up creating more targets for attackers, as lines will build up at each checkpoint and may expose them to car bombs or other issues.

“Any movement of the security ‘comb’ to the public entrance of a terminal building would cause congestion, inconvenience and flight delays, while the inevitable resulting queues would themselves present an attractive target,” said Ben Vogel, Editor, IHS Jane’s Airport Review in an interview with Reuters.

In May 2017, the TSA published a Public Area Security National Framework report, in which the agency and others outline strategies to increase security in public areas. The report discusses updating the design of security checkpoints, as well as increasing “situational awareness” among passengers and their companions.

Using Technology to Improve Safety

In a post for Federal News Radio, David Menzel, sales director for government markets at SITA, proposes some ways the TSA and Congress could use new technologies to promote safety in public spaces.

By using queue monitoring and management, airports can better predict when or if a line may back up and allocate resources to manage that. Biometrics can also play a part, by allowing the airport to obtain the passengers’ facial features at first interaction which would get rid of the need to have travel documents in hand at all times.

Tracking real-time data would help not only airport security officers, but it would also help passengers be able to move quickly to the closed, more protected spaces of the airport. It would also help those waiting on arriving passengers in baggage claim as they monitor flight times and lines.

“Through a collaborative effort, working together with airlines, airports and government agencies, we can address the growing threats our country continues to face,” Menzel said.

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